'Backed into a corner:' Why the lawsuits against Deshaun Watson could take a heavy toll

USA TODAY Sports gathered court records and spoke to legal experts who say Deshaun Watson is under increasing pressure in these cases and “backed into a corner."

Sometime in the next three weeks, NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson will be forced to produce a series of answers about his prolific history of massages, including the following:

► Of the 22 women who are suing him, which of them does he claim to have had consensual sex?

► Of the 18 other women who supported him publicly last year, which of those did he have sex with, if any?

► He also must list all other women who gave him a massage from June 2, 2019, to June 2, 2020, including their email addresses and Instagram handles, according to court records.

“These are very extensive requests,” one of Watson’s attorneys, Leah Graham, told the judge in a hearing last week that was monitored online by USA TODAY Sports.

But the judge determined they were relevant to the lawsuits he faces in Houston and ordered him to provide the information within 30 days. It’s all part of the pretrial evidence discovery process that has intensified recently, more than a year after 22 women sued him and accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

Cleveland Browns new quarterback Deshaun Watson speaks during a news conference at the NFL football team's training facility, Friday, March 25, 2022, in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Even after two criminal grand juries declined to indict him in the 10 cases that were reported to police, these civil lawsuits proceed separately and still could take a big toll on him in several ways.

To assess the stakes, USA TODAY Sports gathered court records and spoke to legal experts who say Watson is under increasing pressure in these cases and “backed into a corner” just a few weeks after being given a blockbuster contract with the Cleveland Browns.

Why the civil cases still matter

The 22 women who have sued him generally accuse him of exposing himself and causing unwanted touching during massage sessions from early 2020 to March 2021, often after he initiated contact with them on Instagram. Watson has denied wrongdoing. His attorney, Rusty Hardin, said the women are lying but there were “sometimes consensual encounters.”

As part of these lawsuits, Watson has been forced to testify in depositions and answer written questions about these appointments. His attorneys objected to many of those questions and declined to answer them, leading to the court hearing last week, when Harris County District Court Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier compelled him to answer some.  

“Watson is being backed into a corner,” said David Ring, an attorney in Los Angeles who has represented sex assault victims but is not involved in the Watson litigation. “He has to settle these cases.  The longer they go on and the more he admits to any kind of sex acts with masseuses, the more he is placing his NFL career in jeopardy.  There will be a tipping point where even though he got off criminally, the civil cases could irreparably damage his reputation and his career.”

Embarrassing details about him could spill into public court and the news media as the cases bring more scrutiny on his behavior. Hardin already has accused the women’s attorney, Tony Buzbee, of selectively leaking information from the proceedings to make Watson look terrible.  And even though Watson avoided criminal charges, that doesn’t mean he was declared “innocent” or cleared of questionable or disturbing conduct.

Buzbee previously compared the situation to the separate criminal and civil trials of O.J. Simpson, the former football star. Simpson was acquitted of double murder in a criminal trial in 1995 but later was found liable for the killings in civil court.

The NFL is watching these civil cases, too

The league is conducting its own investigation and could discipline Watson with a suspension.

“We are closely monitoring all developments in the matter which remains under review of the personal conduct policy,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told USA TODAY Sports.

But all or most of these civil cases might not go to trial until after February, as reported by USA TODAY Sports this month. This was part of deal between the sides to avoid the football season for Watson.

Will the league wait until the civil cases are resolved before deciding on discipline?

“We are not going to speculate on a timeline for decisions while the review is ongoing,” McCarthy said.

Beyond that, sponsors also have an interest in what happens. Several dropped or suspended deals with Watson after the allegations mounted last year, including Nike.

“An adverse civil verdict would also almost certainly close the door on any endorsement deals in the future,” said Kenneth Williams, professor at South Texas College of Law Houston.

The Browns traded for Watson anyway and gave him a contract with the most guaranteed money in NFL history – $230 million over five years.

Two weeks later, the judge ruled he must answer questions about his sexual history with at least 40 women who gave him massages, including the 22 plaintiffs.

Graham, his attorney, had fought this, saying these questions from plaintiffs were overly broad and not relevant to the individual cases at hand. She suggested his legal team might appeal to a higher court.

Why the judge’s decision is a big deal

After the lawsuits against Watson started in March 2021, Hardin tried to take some heat off his client by publicly releasing a list of 18 other therapists who supported him and said they didn’t experience trouble during their interactions with him.

But the attorneys for the plaintiffs wanted to know something else about these 18 women. If Watson had sexual relations with them, they believe it will show Watson routinely entered massage appointments with sexual intentions even though that feeling was not mutual with all the women he contacted for massages.

“Any additional instances of sexual relations between he and other massage therapists makes his accusers more believable,” Williams said. “These additional instances of sexual relations between Watson and other therapists is likely to be admitted as evidence of his intent and therefore problematic should the case go to trial.  The women would be able to testify at any trial even if they are not suing him.  Thus, he has a very strong incentive to settle before the cases go to trial.”

Buzbee told USA TODAY Sports that Watson admitted in a pretrial deposition that he engaged in consensual oral sex with at least one plaintiff. That plaintiff denies it was consensual. But this admission gives Buzbee an opening to show he’s “reaching out to these women for that very purpose” and pushing them to get it, Buzbee said.

Last week the judge ruled Watson also must identify the plaintiffs with whom he had sex, what he was given consent to do, when consent was given and the method by which he received consent, according to court records.

In another development, the plaintiffs' attorneys started expanding the scope of the lawsuits by adding claims of negligence against Watson.

What that means

Buzbee’s firm added negligence claims to two of the 22 lawsuits last week, with plans to add it to more. By adding these claims, the plaintiffs are arguing that Watson knew of his sexual proclivities in massage settings but failed to prevent a reoccurrence of them or warn the plaintiffs about them.

This in turn allows the plaintiffs to expand the scope of pretrial evidence gathering in terms of any pattern he had with his behavior during massages. It also adds another claim “through which the jury can assess liability and damages against him,” Buzbee said.

Almost all other lawsuits share other specific claims against him – civil assault and infliction of emotional distress.

Adding negligence claims still seems like a stretch to some.

“From a legal point of view, how does a person negligently have a massage?” asked Ring, the attorney in Los Angeles. “It’s a bit of a strange argument for the plaintiffs to make.”

Even so, Ring sees this claim as a possible escape hatch for Watson. He could use it to explain his massage history and pay these women to end these lawsuits before they take a heavier toll.

“It’s decision time for Watson – testify about all of his interactions with these other women, or somehow get all of these cases settled now,” Ring said. “The new negligence claims against Watson give him an out.  He can settle these cases and say, ‘OK, I was negligent, but I didn’t commit any assaults, and I committed no crimes.  I just didn’t act carefully enough.’  This can save his career.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com